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The Causal Compass: Finding Causes of Behavior & Economical Management

Updated: Jul 15, 2023

Rob Scalise, MS, MBA

A manager in control of her surroundings

The Manager Practitioner Series Part 2

In Part 1 of the series, we saw shifts in a leader’s job description and its relation to the goals of behavior science. We introduced the nuances of managing like a practitioner to improve your awareness and how using a structured approach can inform your training and on-the-job experiences. Part 2 will continue evaluating and explaining the causes of behavior, focusing on finding causal relationships and using them to your advantage to motivate and understand people. Part 2 will finalize the scientific assumptions needed to use the tools we will cover later in the series.

It’s not always a great idea to be overanalytical or a stickler for words. And nobody likes a mansplainer, nobody. Still, being in charge, people count on you – money and resources are on the line. You need economic solutions that lead you to results, not turning in circles and looking for more answers. Corporations spend actual Billions (around 70) every year on employee development. Almost half of that goes to leadership development. You’re expected to deliver the goods.

This starts with the ability to diagnose and explain the causes of performance, both your own and others. The old saying, “work smarter, not harder,” applies in a scientific approach to behavior. It’s a pragmatic approach. Finding functional causes and acting on them gets a little easier when you know where to look. Our society has become very good at describing behaviors but not at tracing them back to their sources. Mostly, we are just looking in the wrong places - causing us to hit the gas pedal and draw conclusions without considering the conditions.

There won’t be any deep dive into nature vs. nurture or the origin of life. I need you awake for this (this topic is already dry enough!). Sound logic and a scientific approach are all the tools you need to tackle the subject of causes. We will review our main argument in the first 2 portions of this article. The rest goes through typical explanations for behavior and why they don’t work. It is a long piece, I’ve tried to make it all interesting, but the goods are first.

The Causal Compass - Finding Causes of Behavior and the Environment

A compass representing environmental causes

The main component of behavior science is studying the environmental influence on our behavior. This influence is the core assumption in finding and manipulating causal relationships, it provides a compass. The methodology has been built from decades of direct experimentation and study of animal behavior, yes, including humans. My field is the application of this science, typically called applied behavior analysis. It is geared toward diagnosing causal relationships and using technologies to help people change their behavior or learn new skills. The power of this methodology lies in its scope, simplicity, and efficiency. I’ve used it personally to get people talking and reading for the first time all the way to designing cross-functional communication processes, incentives, and more. Its value has been proven across many domains including, studying drug effects, consumer behavior, addiction and relapse, economics, and organizational management. Just name a few.

The environment refers to the events we experience, both inside and outside our bodies, at any given time. It could be a kiss, a thought, a bird call, a lyric, an itch, a smile, or a significant life event. It could be chocolate or just the sight of the wrapper of your favorite chocolate. A causal relationship is precisely that, a relationship. A give and take. An ebb & flow. Peas in a pod. Between you and the world. If something in your environment changes, so do you, and vice-versa. But for a causal affair, it takes 3 to tango. It's a logical and straightforward concept that works across situations. On a basic level, you have a simple relationship between 3 events – an antecedent, a behavior, and a consequence. We call this a contingency. Given it's relationship to the environment, we call it an environmental contingency.

An environmental contingency explaining antecedents, behavior, and consequences

The goal is reliable responses to specific conditions. Just like with any relationship, the connection can be fragile and complicated when things get real. Science is a game of probabilities, not absolutes, and this is no different. The stronger the relationship between the antecedent and the consequence, the higher the chance someone will consistently respond to the antecedent in the same way. You will have more erratic behavior when the connection is weak, like having different consequences for the same antecedent. Our environment is just as dynamic as our individual differences, making it difficult to see if you don’t look in the right places, but it is always there. This is why I call the environment a compass. When the directions change, we can follow it to the cause.

A simple example.

When I come to a red light, I stop my car. The sight of the red light (the antecedent) causes me to hit the brake. Remove the red light or change it to green, and my behavior changes. I hit the brake (behavior) to stop my car, avoid injury or death, and get to my destination (the consequence). In my life, I’ve seen people stop at red lights, I’ve been told to stop at red lights, and I have also stopped at red lights – all times where people have not wrecked and reached their destination. The red-light reliably produces the same behavior due to the consistency and magnitude of the consequence. We would say this is a robust causal relationship. The red light is causing my behavior and the consequences keep the relationship glued together.

Take note of two things. 1. I did not mention anything about my intuition, unconscious, or implicit thoughts. 2. Everything in this scenario is observable, measurable, and able to be objectively studied and changed.

Let’s play a little.

Maybe I’m in a hurry (antecedent change), and no cars are around (different consequence), so I run the red light. The relationship has been altered, so has my behavior. Though I don’t condone it, the causal relationship with the red light will diminish if I do this enough, and I may only stop occasionally at red lights. If I’m a generally dangerous driver, I’ve not faced the bad consequences for other similarly risky behaviors, particularly when driving. Quite possibly, my dad drove dangerously with me in the car – further weakening my responses to the traffic rules. Maybe, I don’t wear my seatbelt, and nothing terrible happens. Maybe I’m on a rural highway and start to speed. Conditions would dictate that no police are there pull me over.

Using a simple contingent relationship, I can explain current behavior, the related behavior, origins, and how it generalizes to other situations. I also can prove it if I want to by altering the conditions and measuring my driving habits. The critical takeaway is that my behavior changed because of changes in my environment. There is no need, or use, for additional explanation.

Think about how some situations seem weird or scary at first. No matter how many times someone tells you, "it will be fine!" This is a result of unclear relationships with your current environment. You don’t know what to expect, how to find joy, what to avoid, etc. As you experience the situation more, you become more comfortable. The relationships become clearer through your experiences with the environment, not through understanding and implicit thought processes. Behavior doesn’t occur in a vacuum. We need input from our surroundings, or we have nothing.

This applies directly to leadership and management. Leaders are either appointed, hired, or selected by their peers. You become a signal, or beacon, in people’s environments. Depending on the timing, your behavior acts as either antecedents or consequences in other people’s settings. Your words, directions, and actions all represent causal relationships for someone else – there’s no choice in the matter. In simple terms, you become a signal for good things, neutral things, or bad things based on their experiences with you. Being vigilant to your role in these environmental contingencies is the basis for all modern leadership training and discussion. Consistency to trust to persuasion – it's all in these relationships. Things like policies, standards, expectations, job aides, directions, goals, models, training, and so on serve as antecedents. How you act towards these antecedents and apply them to people’s lives (consequences) will determine how reliably they respond. This is the essence of leadership, teaching, coaching, and the like.

Let’s look at a simplified example to demonstrate this.

My boss tells me they need a report by Friday (antecedent). I’ve been given a deadline, but this only modified the direction, meaning I should get to work quicker. There’s no relationship yet. If my boss rewards (consequence) me for being on time - "Good job, Rob" - or punishes me for being late (consequence) - "What the hell, Rob?" then we have some type of relationship. If the result is meaningful, the relationship between my boss’s directions and my behavior (persuasion) will be stronger. If he ignores my efforts or arbitrarily changes the consequence, "You said I'd have the day off, damnit," this will weaken the relationship (trust). If he threatens me or promises extra rewards and doesn’t follow through, the relationship is weakened (consistency). Do this enough, his words and actions lose value and no longer reliably affect my behavior. I'll start respond to different things, like just doing enough to get my paycheck, watching TikTok videos at work, or checking job postings.

This same methodology applies to your indirect actions. As a leader, you are a beacon. Suppose they see you doing things you ask them not to do or treating others in different ways than you do them. In that case, you are changing the relationships between your actions (antecedents/consequences of their environment) and their actions (antecedents & consequences in your environment). Further diminishing the light of the beacon and your effectiveness as a leader.

Of course, we won’t always have the time to find every little thing going on in the lives of our team members. Nor do we always have time to go around directly measuring everyone’s behavior. But you don’t have to, that’s why you hire consultants! On a serious note, this isn’t always necessary. When you improve your ability to isolate important variables and indicators of performance and follow some of the steps upcoming in the series, it doesn’t take much. As you will see, this methodology – when followed correctly – will help you minimize costs by making you more efficient and removing all the fluff we’ve added to behavior over the years.

Personally, I don’t run around explicitly analyzing conditions all day (outside of work). If I’m faced with a decision to correct someone in conversation, I try not to. No one likes this, and I’ve found this out by experience. Of course, I’m simplifying things in this article for explanatory purposes, but I don’t think using fancy words no one understands helps anyone. Quite frankly, if I mention consequences – people often think I mean something else, so I use everyday language. I try to do this as much as I can in this series. It’s also the only direction I give authors of posts in this blog. It isn’t essential to learn and use the terminology but to understand the power of the methodology. Science isn’t a belief system. I don’t want to brainwash anyone. Good science gives you practical tools to use when you need them.

Economical Management & Leadership

The most sought-after skills aren’t what they used to be. Instead of task-based experience and knowledge, most companies value critical thinking & problem-solving and teamwork/communication skills. In other words, can you adapt and apply your experiences. This will continue as more team-based job designs continue and a more fractured workplace structure (hybrid and work-from-home) takes hold. Focusing on managing the environmental contingencies surrounding people’s work behaviors will focus your attention on what your people need most. In addition, give you the ability to adapt to changing settings and work structures. Do it efficiently, and you are managing like a pro.

On an organizational level, this simple methodology utilizing environmental factors to make effective changes in your workplace is not just effective at organizing and directing others. It’s also the most efficient and cost-effective. Time and time again, we see large-scale and work-intensive performance review systems, training initiatives, and management systems – instead of looking for the most economical path. It’s not a surprise that strategies like 360-feedback get eye rolls, including from me! They come with high costs in time and money and are often subject to the same problems as the dreaded yearly performance review. Most often, they aren’t done correctly and turn into black hole investments. If you have a management team focused on sound but straightforward practices – not only will they be just as successful as any other formal performance system, they will also be working to build a strong culture in the company. The key to identifying causes is finding relationships between environmental events that surround someone’s behavior. This, in turn, is key to getting people to respond reliably to the things you want them to. Remember the contingency. Research (and my experiences) show that employees don’t always need to be overburdened by feedback or fancy rewards to be motivated. If people are provided with opportunities to do their work with minimal interruptions to their life, know more about the company and their role, and have a chance to give their input, you will generally have a motivated workforce. In short, quit trying to chase after a secret weapon. It’s already right in front of you. Identify the specific conditions that support your employees the most and go hard to make those possible. Coincidentally, the most effective, least work-intensive, and cheapest strategies at shaping & motivating behavior are found in the conditions most easy to change. Which ones do you use? That depends, and it is up to leadership and management to find out.

Designing effective processes, job roles, communication systems, goals, compensation packages, standards, and policies effectively motivate employees and shapes cultures - but only if they are designed to help the person doing the job. They're all also only part of the causal relationship. Antecedents only do enough to set things in motion. You need the glue to connect behavior to this relationship or you won't have much effect. This comes from consequences – how you're recognizing and following up with your teams. If management and leadership effectively know their workforce, follow up, and deliver on these antecedents, you don’t need fancy and expensive systems. Nothing works without buy-in, but the buy-in is much easier if you take the right approach and speak the correct language. Performance management should never be used as a monolithic tool. Translate your company’s goals into consequences that matter to the specific employees or teams, and they will reward you with hard work.

A representation of the environmental contingency as it relates to the leadership role explaining the different forms of management control over a situation.

Utilizing this methodology can help make your interactions with your team and colleagues more efficient and productive on an interpersonal level.

It doesn’t mean you are constantly analyzing. It means you are always motivating. Part of being a good leader and manager is removing barriers to help your team reach its goals. You depend on others to have success in your role. By taking a less monolithic approach and understanding that each person’s environment is unique, you will notice motivations and variables that a typical interaction won’t provide. Maybe Bob likes to talk a lot at meetings, he is knowledgeable and helpful, but he often veers off course. Instead of correcting Bob, which may cause meeting withdrawal, you give Bob some opportunities to meet with you one-on-one or design more team exercises to provide outlets for social interactions in other activities. Here, you’re addressing more than Bob’s perceived flaws, but the conditions that could be causing Bob’s longwindedness – he just wants some social attention.

Or maybe you get some complaints about one of your most skilled team members. Reports of dissents and circumventing normal processes have been mounting. People are pissed. Instead of the typical “come into my office to discuss” to scold Steve – you provide him an outlet to be more engaged. You can task him with reviewing his work processes and come to you with possible improvements – “I would really like your input, Steve.” This allows him to take control, be part of the process, and hopefully provide him more clarity on the job role within the team. At worst, you get to know Steve more. At best, you have an improved job process and more involved team members. Here, instead of addressing or trying to change Steve, we focus on the most likely causes of Steve’s behaviors and the things you can most control as a leader. We’ve also de-escalated a dissenting situation, positively.

Most organizational goals and motivations don’t really match with those of individual employees. Often disrupting the relationships you need to motivate and influence. One role of leaders is to translate those goals into something salient in their employees' environments. Incentives work as imperfect substitutes, but only if they relate back to the conditions around the person. If you can’t identify those needs and causal relationships, you are forcing unneeded and costly incentive systems and straining the relationship further.

Satisfaction & Training

Are you satisfied with the feedback your manager gives? Please rate 1 to 5. Satisfaction is a construct (see below) that both explains everything and nothing. There are a lot of conditions that can affect satisfaction and it leaves a lot of ambiguity. It’s just a name for other stuff (see reasons below). They are satisfied because their conditions are conducive to their behaviors and preferences. I could be happy and also receive bad feedback. Maybe I like my job for other reasons and don't want to mess anything up with a bad rating. If you are concerned with your employees' happiness, satisfaction levels can be helpful information. Too often, these types of employee satisfaction surveys are just used as superficial attempts to show concern but never turn into meaningful changes. Or they are just too general to help management make the changes that are needed.

Can they be helpful? Maybe. Having data just for the hell of it isn't helpful. Most of the time these scores are averaged out and the people who aren't satisfied get glossed over. Satisfaction surveys, much like training and other information-gathering tools used in business, often don’t relate back to job performance. Designing questions and interactions to get answers important to the causes will help you be more efficient and well-meaning. Focus on the conditions, for example: Please list some things that are important to you at work. Does your job role support your actual work? Do you know what your job description is? Does it make sense to you? What motivates you at work? What types of problems do you run into in your daily work? If you were to improve your job, how would you do it? Do you like direct feedback? These all are questions (not limited to) that lead to the changes needed to keep your people satisfied. This also shows that you care about what they do and informs your interactions with them in the future.

Billions of dollars are spent each year on training. Still, most companies either don’t know how or can’t measure the effectiveness training has on work performance (also true with safety prevention). Without ways to show ROI, we are reliant on generalized satisfaction surveys. Did you like the training? Please rate 1 to 5. Just because someone is charismatic or runs popular training (while valuable for other reasons) doesn’t make the person being trained a better performer. If your goal is to make people happy, then fine, have at it. If you are paying for training that isn’t specific to skill deficits and applying that training to their particular conditions, you are just gambling with precious resources and sending people on a (mostly unwanted) field trip - "Not another training!" Personalized, selective, interactive training can help you do this. Gathering data on your employees beforehand and using trainers that can utilize this information can also help. Regardless, follow-up is always best. These strategies utilize the conditions important to your people and use contingency-based practices to help promote reliable behaviors.

Empathy in Science

Empathy is consistently ranked as an essential quality in a good leader. Empathy itself is just a label for other behaviors, making it hard to define. Therefore, harder to practice. A scientific approach to behavior can provide a helpful tool for practicing and building empathetic skills. If you focus on finding causes in a person’s environment, you will shift attention to the things that affect that person's everyday behavior. By shifting away from personal flaws, traits, or beliefs, you relate more to the people you lead, making yourself more relatable. Going from “it’s your fault” to “I can see how you got to this point” not only frames your interactions in a relatable manner but allows you to communicate effectively. It also positions you best to make a difference for that person. If you see yourself as being a part of, or a reason for, it makes it that much easier to connect and understand their behavior. Most often, you’ll find you have more in common with others than you think.

The Metaphysical Human. Looking Within.

A star wars meme highlighting the problem of finding causes within people

For a long time, we’ve been obsessed with using metaphysical reasons to explain behavior. From literature to movies, the language evolved from this concept has resulted in the most fantastic imagery and storytelling that has captivated us for centuries. It’s fun! And I’m not immune. But there may be a reason this journey hasn’t been so fruitful in its goals.

An athlete wins a game in the closing moments due to a superior will to win. Someone’s ego stands in the way of what they really need. We go on journeys to find our identity yet look deep inside ourselves for energy and motivation. We get down on ourselves because we have low self-esteem, and having a solid mindset will cause us to have high self-esteem. We are told to focus our minds, watch our mentals (my favorite!). To get better at this, we practice mindfulness.

Most of these concepts took hold when certain powerful groups (primarily psychologists) held significant influence in this space and shaped our available language about behavior. The overgeneralized and often unproven inferences combined with the human fascination of finding deeper meaning in the metaphysical made a good combination. Its social utility – mainly statements that can’t be challenged - cemented this language into its daily use.

This type of metaphysical language has a prominent place in society. It’s everywhere we go, and we all use it – typically in less noticeable forms and mostly when the stakes are low. Someone may have an attractive personality or say they’re not in the right mental space. Or higher stakes discussions like implicit and decision-making biases to guide public policy. There’s a common theme with all these statements: they are focused on parts of our bodies that we can’t see, hear, touch, smell, or taste. It’s a dualistic approach. It assumes there are two separate worlds, a mental one and a physical one. The mind and the body. As if we have magical superpowers no other organic being has. The problem comes not from the concepts themselves but when we attribute the mental world as the cause for the physical world. I’m not the language police, and I have no intention of discrediting anyone’s beliefs. This language gave way to social advancements and added value to our ability to communicate our experiences in the arts. You can believe whatever you’d like! But when it’s time to put on your decision-maker pants, it’s best to find ways to separate the two worlds.

Traits. The Leadership Abyss.

a person who keeps digging a hole deeper so they can't get out representing the lack of practical help available in the literature

For decades, we’ve gone down the rabbit hole of analyzing the role of traits in predicting our success in life. We are fascinated with why others are successful, but we tether this fascination to imitating the person (qualities) and not the conditions that made them successful. There is no shortage of this effort in the leadership and management discourse. Most of the time & energy spent on this topic was driven by the dualistic ideology we just discussed. Spurring the age-old question, are good leaders born that way, or can they be taught?

The truth is, almost all the research on the correlation of certain traits and leadership has been flawed. Most researchers and academic leaders have adjusted and shifted language and analysis to physical behaviors and their environmental contexts (Applause!). But the damage has already been done. The public hasn’t caught up and may never. This type of pseudo analysis still dominates our everyday language of causation and most conversations revolving around management practices and leadership.

One of the biggest problems and oversights, it never even passed a simple logical test. The premise of traits, characteristics, and qualities as reasons for behavior is a nominal fallacy. A nominal error occurs when a name or label is created to explain something. That label is then offered as a cause – instead of the stuff it was designated to define. Mostly just other behaviors.

Lazy, extroverted, stupid, neurotic, conscientious, intelligent, creative, assertive, anxious, honest, confident, talented, racist, friendly, biased, openness…and so on.

We all use these words every day, usually as adjectives. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the words. If I say someone is acting lazy, there is no harm. Like our metaphysical language – their utility is to provide words to study and describe emotions & behavior patterns. When we name something, it allows us to learn and communicate about it. But these are names, not tangible things. Most of these words are hypothetical constructs, which, by definition, stand for something that can’t be directly observed. At most, they are a description of someone’s behavior patterns. At least, they are ill-advised inferences. Shortcuts.

Again, the problem arises when we attribute these names and labels as causes. Beyond description and classification, they have little to no utility in explaining behavior. One popular way this occurs is with psychological diagnoses. A disorder is named to describe a set of symptoms. Symptoms are indications of the disorder, primarily descriptions or observations of behaviors. We can’t use a disorder or disease as a causal statement, as it is just a placeholder. For instance, people can be diagnosed with autism. Nobody acts a certain way because they are autistic. We may have depression, but depression doesn’t make us do anything. This only furthers stigma, misunderstanding and is a big reason why stereotypes are reinforced. In fact, people with these conditions are still human and still behave like humans for the same reasons as you or I.

Biases are another popular way to get tripped up in this mistake. They are labels that describe our attitudes and tendencies – in other words, how we act toward others. An attributional error is a bias – a tendency to attribute causality within a person’s characteristics instead of more practical reasons. It goes like this: Bill gets straight A’s on his report card. He must be brilliant. When his grades are most likely a result of good study habits. Funny enough, this error is the whole premise of this article. Not so amusing is that we still typically characterize biases in terms of causal relationships (as I rip my hair out!). We can act with a bias but cannot act someway because of a bias. Doing so would be an attributional error and a nominal fallacy. It also leads to circular reasoning.

Both metaphysical causes and nominal fallacies turn you in circles, literally. It is a way to say something but explain nothing. This reasoning typically isn’t challenged in conversation, which proliferates its use. Circular reasoning serves to shut down further questioning and doesn’t allow for a proper analysis.

Circular reasoning showing how most explanations don't really explain much at all

First, none of these explanations yield any physical properties. We only have tools to objectively measure tangible properties. To further explain, it’s not that we can’t see self-esteem – it’s that we can’t measure it beyond subjective description. I can ask you questions about your self-esteem, but I cannot measure it beyond what you can access and choose to tell me. We also can’t see gravity, but we have exact equations to calculate gravitational forces. Even if I put you on an fMRI machine to measure which brain parts are being used when we have low self-esteem, it won’t matter. We are not measuring self-esteem; we are measuring brain activity. More specifically, the brain’s response to environmental stimuli. If we find a self-esteem gene in the future, that gene will assume a causal role because, hypothetically, altering it will change our self-esteem.

We can’t experiment on a metaphysical world any more than we can a label. There is no way for us to find and prove causal relationships. I can’t change the parameters of someone’s ego or take away their will and measure the effect. We can’t gain access­ to our own subconscious. How could anyone else? Similarly, if we take away the autism label, people will still have social deficits. Or maybe we say, “whoops, there actually is no implicit bias.” Will people cease blaming victims of abuse or having racist behaviors? Seems like a stretch. Being able to withdraw and or modify conditions and study the effects of those changes is the only way to prove functional causal relationships beyond statistical correlations. It’s not that we don’t have the technology, or we just haven’t advanced enough. It’s just physically impossible.

An Emotional Ending

One of the knocks on behavior science is that it assumes people are robots. This can’t be further from the truth. Emotions and feelings are real, and they are big part of our lives and environments. I’m a highly emotional person! Humans are awe-inspiring, the level of complicated structures that function just to help us breathe are beyond anything else in this world. We don't need to add extra stuff.

Emotions are often attributed as causes because they are paired with certain conditions and thus certain behaviors. Meaning we don’t act because of our feelings or emotions, but they occur alongside certain behaviors. We know emotions are governed by our central nervous system, and we can measure physiological reactions during emotional occurrences. Here, we are not assessing an emotion. We are measuring our body's responses to the outside world. Our words for emotions are a description of this response. Emotions are a way our body tells us something is important - a part of us that has developed over time and considered advantageous to our survival. They make good or bad conditions, like sex or starvation, more salient so that we may act appropriately (i.e. fight or flight). But this is due to the environmental conditions, not the feeling or emotion.

A simple way of looking at this is hunger. Hunger is typically described as a feeling. I feel hungry, so I eat. The feeling doesn’t cause my need for food; it results from my lack of food. We feel hungry when food deprivation occurs. The feeling we get when we are hungry is complimentary. It may change the value of the behavior, but it's not the cause.

In Part 3 of the series, and subsequent parts, we will cover specific things you can start doing right away to assess and implement meaningful changes for your employees based on these environmental contingencies. The series will continue soon! Thanks for reading. As always, please feel to contact me if I can help explain further.

Pros become practitioners of their craft by studying and practicing the right things. Anything you do as a manager or leader can affect those around you and is an essential part of the job description. These aren’t passive roles you just come by, but positions that require a skillset you can practice and employ. This series will dive deep into what managing like a practitioner looks like and focus on aspects of the role you don't typically see in workshops, textbooks, and social media. Behavior science doesn’t claim to know all the answers. Instead, it provides a methodology and skillset to help you find them yourself. This series aims to translate those tools to help you better inform your experiences as a manager, leader, or coach.

Rob Scalise - The author and owner of Villiv

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